Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Populism’s Popularity

“Irish Parties Put Their Car Keys in a Bowl as Coalition Talks Begin”
—Headline on the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News on Monday
What exactly is a populist? It’s a word that you hear a lot, and perhaps you even use it yourself. Do we all understand and mean the same thing when it is used?

For a while now my own handy definition of populist has been a politician who is very popular but whom I personally do not like. That is because the word usually seems to be used in negative connotation, usually in relation to President Trump.

I have now gone to the trouble of looking up the dictionary meaning, and this is what at least one online dictionary says: “A person, especially a politician, who strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition is even simpler, not mentioning elites: “A person who seeks to represent or appeal to the interests of ordinary people.” That suggests that, if you consider the word populist some kind of epithet, then it must be because you have little regard for the concerns of “ordinary people.”

In a democracy isn’t appealing to most people, presumably including ordinary people, the whole point of the exercise? Yet in many uses of the word populist I get a sense that the word’s target is branded as manipulating or deceiving simple-minded folks. I suppose it comes down to one’s confidence in the judgment of the electorate as a whole.

The dictionary definition does not ascribe any particular ideology to populism, so pretty much any politician—left, right or center—can be one, as long as his or her rhetoric is aimed squarely at ordinary folks. President Trump certainly qualifies, but you would have to say that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren do as well. Their clear message is that ordinary people are being exploited by the rich and powerful. In Ireland I think you could say that, similarly, Mary Lou McDonald, head of the Sinn Féin party, qualifies as a populist. She claims to speak on behalf of ordinary people in rejecting policies of the two parties that have governed the Irish republic since its founding.

Since very few politicians would claim not to represent the interests of ordinary people, does the term populist have any meaning at all—other than to to frighten the supporters of longtime, well-established politicians or parties?

If we think of populism as simply a rejection of politics as usual, then there is certainly a lot of it around.

Having now won a popular plurality in the first two Democratic primary contests, Sanders is certainly worrying the “elites” in his party. Is it more important that he came in first in New Hampshire, though, or that candidates more “moderate” than he and Elizabeth Warren (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden) collectively took more than half the vote? That depends on whether Democratic voters are mostly making their choices by looking at the candidates through a left/moderate prism or through an electable/non-electable lens. In voters’ minds candidates are unlikely to shift between left and moderate lanes, but they can easily move been electable and non-electable categories. Joe Biden, for example, seems to be making such a transition.

Of course, the U.S. primaries are merely the first stage of the presidential election. Once the two parties have their nominees, then we will move on to the final vote in November.

In Ireland, the process is a bit more complicated, but with any luck it will be a lot less time-consuming. The country has the results of its general election, which was held on Saturday, and now a government has to be formed. Since no party has a particularly sizeable plurality—let alone a majority—the top vote-getting parties must enter into negotiations to work out some kind of governing coalition or arrangement.

Of the 160 seats in Dáil Éireann, 38 have gone to Fianna Fáil, 37 to Sinn Féin, 35 to Fine Gael (the incumbent governing party), and 12 to the Green Party. The remaining 38 seats are spread out over a collection of smaller parties and independent politicians. If you enjoy a good round of Sudoku, then have fun trying to put together a combination of those numbers to get to or above the governing threshold of 80.

The simplest solution on paper is a “grand coalition” of the two establishment parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) plus the Greens, but there are a whole lot of reasons why that is a problem for at least two of those parties. For one thing the Greens—as well as Labour (which tallied a mere 6 seats this time) and the now-extinct Progressive Democrats—have previously seen their fortunes seriously dashed by going into coalition with one of the big parties. Fianna Fáil has also been burned by propping up Fine Gael for the past four years. Such arrangements do nothing to dispel the increasingly popular notion that FF and FG are merely two wings of a single virtual political party.

Mindful that Sinn Féin actually won the popular vote and would have actually won the most seats if they had only run more candidates, the big parties seem content for now to let McDonald see what she can manage by combining her party’s 37 seats with those of smaller parties and independents. If she succeeds—and it has to be seen as a pretty darn big if—it will result in a history-making “coalition of the left.”

It will also mark a stunning triumph of populism.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Election Season

“Why, why why, could they not have had this reporting problem in 2004? Asking for a friend.”
—Late Monday night tweet about the Iowa caucuses from Joe Trippi, veteran Democratic strategist who was Howard Dean’s campaign manager in 2004
Remember that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times? I wonder if whoever came up with that was thinking about something like the coronavirus. Or maybe early 21st-century election campaigns?

For the next few days I am in the interesting position of observing fascinating campaigns in both of my countries. The American one will go on quite a bit longer, but the Irish one will end on Saturday—closing an election period with the very civilized lifespan of a mere 25 days.

Usually, the only questions in an Irish election are as follows: will it be Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael that will form a government and will they have to find a coalition partner? If the polling is to be believed, however, things could be different this time. A major opinion poll released yesterday has Sinn Féin in first place with 25 percent, followed by Fianna Fáil at 23 percent and Fine Gael (the current government party) at 20 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percent.

Typical Irish election
social media humor
Opinion polls, of course, are not destiny, as people who dislike Brexit and Donald Trump know all too well. For whatever reason, Sinn Féin has historically underperformed its opinion polling, but of course that will continue to be true only until it isn’t. If Sinn Féin does indeed come in first, it will be huge. It will mean that Irish voters will have taken a major step away from the legacy factions of the 1922-23 Civil War toward a party that is a strange mixture of nationalist and socialist ideas and of which the primary raison d’être is the reunification of the island’s 32 counties. My own personal political intelligence (I follow a few college-age Irish people on Twitter) tells me that many young, as well as some not-so-young, voters are enthused about the prospect of a left-wing coalition that could comprise the Green Party, Sinn Féin, and a collection of other smaller parties and independents.

What about older—and generally more reliable—voters? The country is actually in pretty good shape in terms of employment and the economy, but there is a lot of unease over hospital waiting times and a persistent homeless crisis. Moreover, a string of spectacularly violent incidents involving feuding criminal gangs has created an impression of things spinning out of control. The polling might indicate that people are looking for change even if they little to complain about their own current personal circumstances.

Meanwhile, how about things in the U.S.? I have to confess that I got a frisson of déjà vu this morning when a radio bulletin informed me there was hiccup with the results of the Iowa caucuses. This follows the rather shocking discarding of the Des Moines Register poll, which is traditionally the final pre-caucus tea-leaves reading. If one is prone to conspiracy theories, one might be tempted to fear a cover-up or an attempt at massaging results. Other details that feed this paranoia: earlier polls were suggesting that Bernie Sanders would win and the fact that, in certain banana republics, delayed election results are a warning sign of mischief.

Worryingly, this is more likely to be something worse than vote tampering. It could be sheer incompetence. Think about it. The very same party that has been harping for more than three years about Russian hacking into social media and U.S. elections is not only the same one whose last presidential candidate was found to have been conducting all her government business on an unsecured email server in a closet in her home but which is now the same party that has attempted to collate its first 2020 voting results with a new app that did not work.

I’ll be honest. I’m getting very worried about the Democratic Party. Not only did it clearly fix its presidential nomination process four years ago for a pre-determined candidate, but this time around it seems determined to sabotage itself by frittering away its two-year term in control of the House of Representatives by doing nothing but relitigating the last election and offering no clear-cut vision for the next election. That is not to say that there are not new and interesting ideas out there in the Democratic Party, but the people who run the party seem determined to tap the energy of those ideas without seriously entertaining the ideas themselves.

For more than three years now Democrats have lectured us that President Trump is a threat to democracy because of his authoritarian tendencies. They impeached him for seeking an investigation of a political opponent. The problem is that half the country looks at the Democratic Party and sees it doing exactly what it accuses the president of doing: using its political office to launch endless investigations of a political enemy. What else does the Democratic congressional majority have to show for the past year?

If voters have concerns about the integrity of American elections, will they really be inclined to turn to the people in charge of this year’s Iowa Democratic caucuses? And which happens to be the same party that was so concerned about democracy that it engaged in a completely quixotic attempt to bar the other party’s president from being able to run for re-election?